When Return of the King nabbed the Oscar for Best Picture in 2003, fans of fantasy enjoyed a sweet victory. But fans of science fiction have never had a similar moment because a true sci-fi movie has never won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Despite dominating the technical awards every year, sci-fi films are rarely even nominated for the Oscars’ most prestigious honor. But this year, the Best Picture nod of Denis Villeneuve’s moody alien invasion drama, Arrival, seemed to signal that the Academy has finally begun to break the bias. Still, Arrival isn’t the first sci-fi movie to be nominated for Best Picture.
The history of the Best Picture category has been peppered with films about aliens, spaceships, lasers, future technology, and more. You just need to know where to look. Here are nine solid sci-fi Best Picture nominees, ranked.
The 89th Academy Awards will air on February 26.
9. The Martian — 2015
Ridley Scott’s latest film was generally regarded as the people’s hit nominee at the 2015 Academy Awards. It’s a masterfully directed film that hinges on Matt Damon’s lead performance as a lonely astronaut stranded on the red planet, but it fails to resonate beyond that. If you’re into sci-fi survival stories, there are plenty of other better examples to choose from. Hell, there are even better Ridley Scott movies to choose from.
8. Inception — 2010
If an ensemble action movie about a secret criminal squad led by Leonardo DiCaprio who steals and implants ideas from and into people’s dreams sounds like the biggest Oscar longshot imaginable, that’s because it was. Christopher Nolan could have done anything following The Dark Knight, and he went big in a way only Nolan knows how. Some say that the movie’s knotty mysteries are all bark and no bite. But there’s never been a psychologically twisted sci-fi success on this scale, and for that, it deserved all the accolades it could get.
7. Her — 2013
Is Spike Jonze’s awkward-guy-falls-in-love-with-his-computer-movie a drama with sci-fi elements or a sci-fi film that has dramatic moments? Her exists somewhere in between. It’s always tugging at the ways sci-fi could inform relationship drama tropes and vice versa. The real standout detail about this film is Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as the computer lover, Theodore Twombly. Phoenix puts in a tender but fractured performance unlike any of the normally intense characters he’s played in the past.
6. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — 1982
This is the Spielberg movie to most people. The bearded one has the unique ability to take highly personal stories and filter them through a sci-fi-tinged lens. Some don’t like E.T.’s tone, which teeters on the edge of saccharine story beats and deeply heartfelt themes about growing up. But this sci-fi tale has more to teach viewers about human emotions than most heavy hitting dramas. Was this the most deserving Best Picture nominee that didn’t win? Probably.
5. Gravity — 2013
Gravity proved that high-concept sci-fi starring two of the planet’s biggest movie stars was still viable if studios gave a unique filmmaker a shot. Alfonso Cuaron took Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and flung them into Earth’s orbit using the most cutting edge CG trickery to make a seamless yet harrowing cinematic experience. The movie may be light on plot and character, but it more than makes up for it in sheer spectacle.
4. Avatar — 2009
When you make the highest grossing film of all time twice in a row, the least you could get would be a Best Picture nomination. James Cameron waited 12 years to follow up his Oscar awards sweep with Titanic, and the king of the world’s big 3D epic proved to be divisive. Critics remain curious about how it earned that much clout without leaving any significant influence in its wake. As far as sci-fi films go, you can’t get much bigger.
3. Arrival — 2016
It seems Denis Villeneuve is here to stay. Under any other filmmaker’s tutelage, this story of a linguist tasked with trying to communicate with an alien ship that mysteriously lands on earth could have been hopelessly cheesy schlock. Instead, this rightful Best Picture nominee is a rumination on love and tolerance. It has a serious shot at taking home the big trophy, but the odds are against it.
2. District 9 — 2009
This is definitely the only Best Picture nominee to have a mech suit in it. Neill Blomkamp’s debut film came out of nowhere to be both a bona fide sci-fi action hit, but also a surprisingly poignant apartheid allegory to boot. Despite its weighty premise about xenophobia and segregation, District 9 will probably go down as the more legit blockbuster choice living under the shadow of Avatar that same year. If only Blomkamp could replicate its success, then it might not be so overlooked.
1. Star Wars — 1977
All of cinema changed because of Star Wars, but that doesn’t necessarily include the Academy Awards. Star Wars was an enormous box office success that would go on to change how blockbuster filmmaking was done, but it still lost out on the awards hardware to Annie Hall. This popular Oscar outliers nomination at least eased the stigma of potentially crowning a film that included spaceships and aliens as opposed to some weighty historical drama.
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